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When Chronic Pain Puts Me in the 'Gray Area' of Disability

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What is a “disability?” Webster’s dictionary defines the term as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”

Not a horrible definition, but not necessarily the most useful. What counts as impairing? Interfering with? Limiting?

Is the fact I once loved going for walks to clear my head, but now I dread walking up stairs “impairing” me? Is the fact I cringe frequently while doing normal tasks at work “interfering with” my success? Is the fact my least favorite chore of washing dishes is even more painful now “limiting” me?

Or am I not impaired because I can still walk? Is my life not interfered with because I still can work? Is the fact I can live independently proof I’m not limited?

I’ve been experiencing chronic pain in my legs and lower back for a little over a year now. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to call myself disabled longer than that due to my other conditions (ADHD and social anxiety).

On the one hand, I see other people my age. I see people in their 20s who can work out and not curl in a ball in pain afterwards. I see people who can stand all day without worrying that their legs might give up halfway through. I see people who can party all night and then go to work in the morning and be fine. When I see healthy young people, I feel disabled.

But then I see people who from my perspective seem to have it much harder than I do. I see people whose pain is so severe they can’t even go for a walk. I see people who can’t work. I see people who say “ouch” all day when barely moving. When I look at them, I feel abled.

But then I look at myself instead of all those other people.

I see a girl who can’t party all night, but who prefers having dinner with a friend anyway. I see a girl who can’t work out, but who can work and who loves her job. I see a girl who needs to be near a chair so she can sit when she needs to, and who needs the option of an elevator, even if she doesn’t usually take it. I see my accomplishments and my struggles.

I’m learning to accept my limits without dismissing my strengths, and I’m learning to embrace my strengths without dismissing my limits.

I’ve learned to stop fretting over labels. I’m not against labels entirely, but I don’t need a label for this right now. I need understanding. From others, yes, but mostly from myself.

Getty image by Splendens.

Originally published: March 19, 2018
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